Li Xueying, Hong Kong Correspondent

No winner in HK as endgame unfolds

The end seems nigh.

The original Occupy Central founders have surrendered. The main protest site at Admiralty will be cleared today.

And the student-led protest movement is clearly floundering, with a series of missteps including a botched siege of government buildings, an aborted hunger strike and long overstaying their welcome on the roads they have occupied the past 11 weeks.

Most importantly, as temperatures in Hong Kong drop, sending a chill through the flimsy tents pitched on the roads of Admiralty and Causeway Bay, public support - vital oxygen for any civic movement - has fast plummeted.

At this point, Beijing and the Hong Kong government might be tempted to congratulate themselves on their strategy of waiting out the protest and letting it self-implode.

And to some extent, they did succeed - without the initial much-feared scenario of People's Liberation Army (PLA) tanks rolling through the streets of Hong Kong and with, so far, relatively measured responses from the local police force.

But the authorities are no winner in this saga.

Long after the tents and banners are packed away, they will be remembered for a lack of political leadership in resolving Hong Kong's worst political crisis since the 1997 handover.

Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers had flooded major roads in the city in the days after Sept 28, spurred by clashes between the police and protesters clamouring for greater freedom to elect their chief executive.

This followed a decision by China's legislature to lay down strict rules that effectively preclude any candidate it does not approve of from running for election.

After one round of talks between the Hong Kong government and the students in early October, which saw the latter intransigent in holding fast to their demands, the former appeared to have decided that lofty disdain is the best way to deal with the youthful, perhaps misplaced, idealism of the protesters.

There was no indication that any real further effort was made by the adults to reach out to the students, whether it was in the form of more dialogue to try to engage them and narrow the chasm between the two sides, or even any show of empathy that could have helped the protesters find a way to retreat earlier with some dignity.

Instead, the government resorted to using the private sector, the courts and the police to force a resolution to a political problem. Today, court bailiffs, "assisted" by the police, will be clearing the main protest site in Admiralty, after a bus company obtained an injunction from the High Court.

This was successfully carried out in Mong Kok last month, after violent clashes between protesters and police, and it will most likely be successful in Admiralty and Causeway Bay.

But what are the costs of this strategy?

For one thing, it inflicted collateral damage, with the Hong Kong police force bearing the brunt of it. The much-admired Asia's Finest, which painstakingly built up its reputation after the corruption-ridden era of the 1960s and 1970s, and which has been unfailingly professional in keeping the peace during many years of protests and rallies, has seen public support and trust in it erode since the movement began.

Front-line officers, forced to provide a law and order solution to a political problem, understandably buckled under pressure, and videos of them lashing out at protesters with batons have gone viral. A separate case of seven officers allegedly beating up an activist is now being investigated.

A University of Hong Kong survey released on Tuesday showed that the popularity of the police has dropped to a record low since 1997, with a "net satisfaction rate" at just 29 per cent. Even the PLA has become more popular.

Beyond the police, the alienation between the wider establishment and the young protesters will likely persist and worsen.

Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying has identified "a lack of (economic) upward mobility" as a reason fuelling the protests and said that he intends to look into helping young Hong Kongers alleviate their grievances and deal with "a portion of the demands of youth on the streets".

Details are expected to be announced in his annual policy address next month.

While a step in the right direction, it will by no means address the core demands of the young generation.

A survey of youngsters by the Chinese-language Ming Pao paper last week found that a larger proportion is dissatisfied with how the government handles political issues.

This includes the ongoing constitutional reform dispute, as well as their perception of how the government has failed in adhering to the tenets of the "one country, two systems" formula under which the city is ruled, such as "Hong Kongers governing Hong Kong".

Fewer chose as grievances bread-and-butter issues such as high property prices and economic inequality - no insignificant finding in a city with the world's most unaffordable homes and highest Gini coefficient.

This chimes in with my observation from speaking with many of the protesters. Some skipped classes, others stopped work, and most are driven by values such as "fairness" and "democracy" and the overwhelming desire to be masters of their own house with a "high degree of autonomy" under the "one country, two systems" framework.

Lastly, the dwindling support for the occupation should not be mistaken for lack of resonance with the protesters' cause.

The wider Hong Kong society may have pulled back its initial support after months of being inconvenienced.

But there is a yearning for real electoral reform that will make governance in Hong Kong more legitimate and effective.

Without recognising all this - and addressing the underlying issues - Beijing and the Hong Kong government may have succeeded in wresting back control of the roads. But they will have failed in winning the hearts of Hong Kongers.

xueying@sph.com.sg